The sands of reality are shifting around us. The digital and physical worlds are intertwining, creating a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Advances in technology point to a bright future for commerce. But what will it look like? And how can we prepare for it?

Every morning, like clockwork, you make yourself a cup of coffee. Today is no different, it seems: the machine knows what you like, and when you like it. Your fresh, long-draw espresso is already waiting for you as you walk into the kitchen, and the coffee maker chimes happily when you pick it up.

Behind the scenes, however, something is different. Today is special, although you don’t notice it at first. You sit down at your kitchen table and savor the perfect brew, activating your AR glasses so you can watch your personalized newsfeed while you enjoy your breakfast. Halfway through the morning news, you hear a familiar buzzing. A drone descends in your back yard, gently placing a small box on the lawn before zooming back to its roost at the warehouse. Delivery day already?

Finishing your coffee, you retrieve the box. The aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans rushes out to meet you. Below the new coffee, you find detergent pods, dishwasher tabs and two books. You don’t remember ordering them, because you didn’t – your appliances did. And sure enough, when you go to check the coffee maker, it’s running low. It emits a satisfied beep as you refill the beans. Good call.

Science fiction? Hardly. This is the near future of commerce: a seamless blend between e-commerce and physical logistics, all watched over by machines of loving grace. As AR and VR change the way we experience user journeys, AI and data integration augment our world, and intelligent products enable headless commerce, the old world will be replaced by something uniquely, excitingly different. There are many changes ahead of us, and immense opportunities to radically transform global business.

An endless forest of touchpoints

Tomorrow’s customer journeys won’t be limited to the websites and mobile apps we know today, nor will they focus on conventional devices like laptops and smartphones. Instead, touchpoints will be embedded in the physical world. Your environment will become a seamless interface with your digital reality. Every object you can touch will be able to assist you in some shape or form.

"Online will become real life, and real life will always be online."

In the future of commerce, consumers will be able to buy in the moment, no matter where they are or when the impulse strikes them. Online will become real life, and real life will always be online. This generates more opportunities to position your brand, but it also means you will have to maintain your brand experience more diligently. The ability to interact with your customers continuously comes at a cost, after all: those same customers will expect a consistently awesome experience.

To utilize these touchpoints effectively, you will need to craft experiences that are intimate, invisible, automated and embedded. You will need to understand what customers want, gather data without intruding into their lives, deliver value with little to no effort on their part and facilitate seamless interactions with your company throughout their daily journeys. This requires a new approach, one that is driven more by data and less by intuition.

How AI will empower next-gen commerce

In many ways, designing new customer experiences is still a matter of opinion. Today’s designers rely on their intuition, drafting customer journeys from their own expertise and creativity. This approach certainly has its merits, but it will not be able to keep up with the proliferation of touchpoints in an always-online, omnichannel world.

The future of commerce is unambiguously data-driven. To be successful, service will need to become hyper-relevant, capable of adapting quickly to the needs of specific consumers. Achieving this level of relevance requires intelligent automation and deep data analysis in real time. AI is already bringing these capabilities to commerce, allowing marketers to deploy individually-tailored experiences faster and more accurately than ever before.

Adobe Sensei weaves intelligent features into all Adobe products, utilizing AI to support every aspect of the creative process – from image recognition and tagging to content creation and page design. Einstein, an artificial intelligence that lives in the Salesforce Commerce Cloud, is capable of analyzing consumer sentiment and intent to such a degree that it understands whether images where posted in a negative or positive light.

These technologies allow marketers to switch tactics on the fly, and the list doesn’t end there. Whether it’s IBM’s Watson acting as your personal concierge, helping you select gifts, or cognitive systems like those used by Gilt.com and The North Face that use personal parameters to optimize your clothing shopping experience, AI clearly offers staggering potential in commerce applications.

Intelligent products and advanced automation

Thrilled as we are to unbox our new gadgets, it’s easy to forget that most aspects of commerce are not quite so glamorous. For every delighted consumer and perfectly fulfilled order, there is a long chain of repetitive, simple tasks that must be carried out flawlessly every time. Keeping that chain strong requires tireless diligence, which is why e-tailers are increasingly turning to automation.

Already, an army of 45,000 robots patrols the halls of Amazon’s cavernous warehouses, with their numbers set to grow by 15,000 every year. Drone delivery, once thought to be a gimmick, is poised to make a very real impact on global delivery paradigms.

Certainly, there are barriers. At around $35,000 per individual unit, a warehouse robot is still more expensive than a year of human labor. But advancements in technology are making robots smarter, faster and more industrious. It won’t be long before the robot-to-FTE ratio starts to look favorable to SMEs. In the US, robotics will reduce fulfillment costs by upwards of $500 million in the coming years. 

Likewise, intelligent products hold excellent prospects for the future of commerce. Amazon Dash is the first step: a simple button that allows consumers to reorder products at their point of use. The next step will be to remove the buttons entirely, allowing the products to become touchpoints in their own right. Truly headless commerce. Any company that succeeds in rolling product, service and experience into one will find itself extremely well-positioned to delight their customers everywhere.

The future of commerce needs experimenters

The single greatest thing about the future of commerce is that it is open to everybody. There are billions of consumers out there with trillions of unmet wants and needs. Embrace the possibilities. Move forward with the mind of a tinkerer and the heart of an explorer.

Worried about the costs? Don’t be. You don’t have to spend millions of dollars just to get started. In the new digital world, technology is not merely an expense. Instead, it is a potent value generator, one that will reward experimentation and is best approached with a modular mindset. Don’t rebuild your CRM and e-commerce from the ground up – invest in microservice architectures, technologies that can be enhanced and expanded at will both internally and externally, and let your vision and real-world added value determine the pace forward.

Worried about scale? Nonsense. The future of commerce offers wonderful opportunities for SMEs. With so many touchpoints to target, dominating them all will become practically impossible. Retailers and brands will need to take a networked approach to added value, embracing innovative, immersive solutions to target specific aspects of the overall customer experience. “Claim your touchpoint” is a logical extension of “claim your niche”, and it facilitates participation just as well.

Ultimately, your success will be measured in that which makes customers happy. If you focus on that wholeheartedly, with an open mind toward innovation, the results will inevitably follow.

So, test things. Find out what works. Design journeys in terms of the entire life cycle. Don’t stop when somebody buys a product, don’t limit yourself to those moments when somebody happens to be near a screen. Involve your customers personally, use their data and their desires to add radical new value to their lives.

Hire data-minded talent and build architecture that is open, lean and infinitely scalable. Make sure your IT platform can handle the myriad touchpoints of tomorrow. Give your AI the room to learn in such a way that will benefit your customers and your business.

Nobody knows exactly what the future of commerce will hold, but we know it will be radically different from today’s environment. The only way to prepare for that future is by becoming flexible and adaptable enough to thrive in uncertainty. Prepare yourself for continuous change and evolution, and you will find yourself in the best position to compete.